“Forget the past!” — Nelson Mandela
So, is a National Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point a renewed possibility?
There is good reason to be optimistic; a cast of high-energy civic leaders has picked up the pieces of last year’s ugly failure, and they are working to clear the air of miscommunication, mistrust and public confusion.
These folks are marching resolutely on a trail they hope will lead to a $40 million museum at Patriots Point within four years. And they are following Mount Pleasant’s Jim Livingston, an old Marine general who proudly wears his Medal of Honor laurels and knows his way about governmental and corporate funding sources.
This promising new beginning contrasts with the bizarre and sudden end last year of a similar project at Patriots Point. That $100 million plan imploded in crosscurrents of public confusion and personality conflicts among national board members, including Gen. Livingston and several other Medal of Honor recipients. Canadian Israeli Architect Moshe Safdie, retained on a $3.5 million contract, had proposed an over-wrought design — a building that looked more like a disfigured marshmallow than a sanctuary for solemn reflection on heroes and heroism. It also violated the town of Mount Pleasant’s building codes.
Its board shattered by resignations, the National Medal of Honor Foundation left town, on a jet stream of snarky condescension — Mount Pleasant was uncooperative and unyielding to the Safdie design, they claimed, and besides, the Patriots Point site would not generate sufficient attendance. The foundation vowed the project would be shopped to other interested cities throughout the country.
The board had spent a load of money, donations from individuals, government agencies and a $5 million contribution of state funds. And in his tersely worded letter to Foundation CEO Joe Daniels, S.C. Sen Hugh Leatheman, R-Florence, demanded an immediate return of state funds. Daniels complied. Leatherman, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, then committed to holding the state funding “until a final decision is made on the museum’s future — at Patriots Point.”
Jim Livingston would never let this project die, nor fade away: “The past is the past, now let’s focus on getting this done – and we can!”
Ever a gung-ho Marine, Livingston considers this revival with growing urgency. The museum will celebrate heroism and patriotism, honoring the 3,507 individuals who have received the nation’s highest honor for courage and bravery. As Livingston notes, only 71 are still alive. The general will celebrate his 80th birthday Jan. 12.
Conceptual drawings are in hand; the building design would be more traditional, befitting its relationship with historic Charleston, and respectfully consistent with Mount Pleasant’s building guidelines. Charleston County has pledged $5 million, Mount Pleasant has promised $3 million and other support. The Livingston team is regularly meeting with other local governmental units, hunting for financial pledges. Interest grows as the confusion wanes.
And there is a fresh appreciation for the value of a Patriots Point location. Attendance is growing and developer Michael Bennett is implementing new projects and upgrades all over the Patriots Point complex.
Livingston fronts this revival with three connected groups. Insurance executive Tommy McQueeney is chief coordinator and chairs the executive board. He describes board members as “very motivated. ... Several have already personally funded early needs, such as marketing feasibility studies and promotion.”
A “Special Forces Team,” chaired by former Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Jimmy Bagwell, tends to operations led by volunteer “experts” who help with social media, financial planning and accounting. “This format,” says McQueeney, “helps spread the ownership of the project.
The “Congressional Medal of Honor Museum Founders’ Society” is busy raising money. According to McQueeney, 60 individual contributors include some well-known folks — country music’s Lee Greenwood, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, six other generals and admirals and five prominent football coaches — Sammy Wyche, Ralph Friedgen, Tom O’Brien, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney.
Auto dealer and banker Tommy Baker provides broad strategic support including use of his 14-passenger jet.
The Joe Daniels faction has settled in Texas and now plans a museum near Arlington. His group has proposed federal legislation to grant it “THE” national museum designation, which is now applicable to Patriots Point. Livingston watches this carefully and has alerted the South Carolina congressional delegation.
But the general is not interested in the past nor distracting recriminations. “We can’t be influenced by the Texas people. We are more organized and committed than ever. Let’s forget the flack in the air — Focus! Focus!”
An ugly end; a spirited new beginning. And good reasons to expect a National Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point within four years.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.